Preliminary Note: The terrorism case in France involves two separate elements—the murder of people who said things that others found offensive on one hand and the inconsistent outrage over the abuse of freedom of the press and speech on the other. To avoid any confusion in the article below, I want to make clear that I denounce these murders as evil. Even though I find the antics of the Charlie Hebdo magazine to be offensive, that offensive behavior does not justify murder as a response. Please keep this in mind that I do not seek to make any excuses for this act of terrorism.
The attack in France against a satirical magazine is indeed a terrible thing, but reading the news reports and blogs about it, I can’t help but think that some people have missed the point as to why it was a terrible thing. The catalyst for the attack was the comics published by the magazine Charlie Hebdo which mocked the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Some extremists reacted to the offense by killing twelve people at the magazine offices. The Vatican was quick to respond with a condemnation, and had the right idea of what to condemn, saying it was a “double act of violence, abominable because it is both an attack against people as well as against freedom of the press”. That is the truth—the extremists decided they had the right to commit murder in response to people expressing a view which offended them. In response, we are seeing hashtags going around—#IamCharlieHebdo or #JeSuisCharlie aimed at showing solidarity with the murder victims as martyrs as freedom of speech and press.
(The creator of the Asterix comics came out of retirement to publish a protest)
It’s right to be appalled at the use of terrorism as a response to something one finds offensive. But the question is, are we being properly appalled? Or are we merely being appalled in a partisan manner?
Thoughts on Murder as a Tactic vs. Legitimate Tactics in Opposing Evil
First of all, regardless of what is said, no matter how offensive it is, murder is never a justified response. There is a lot of anti-Christian mockery and blasphemy out there. But if some Catholic took it on himself to murder Bill Maher or one of the New Atheists, I would condemn it—not out of sympathy for their speech, but because one may never do evil so that good may come of it. As the Catechism says:
1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.
Blasphemy is evil by its very nature, but I may not murder to stop it because murder is also wrong by its very nature. So even when people abuse the freedoms of speech and the press to deliberately be offensive, even when the West has a hypocritical double standard on what they will tolerate, no person may use an evil means to stop it. Before I move on to my reflections on the use and abuse of freedoms of expression, I want to make this clear. There are both evil and good ways to oppose something evil. When the way chosen is evil, it must be condemned. But when the way chosen is not evil, people are free to pursue it. For example, if these murderers had instead organized a peaceful protest or a non violent boycott of Charlie Hebdo, then there would have been nothing to condemn.
I make the above point because I want to make clear that nothing I say below on the use and abuse of freedoms of the press and speech should be seen as a justification of terrorism. If you think you see that as a reader, you’ve misunderstood my point.
Thoughts on Freedom of Speech and Press and Their Abuse
The freedom of speech and the press are very important rights. They protect us so we can speak the truth publicly without being silenced by people who don’t want to have that truth challenge their preferred way of living. Unfortunately, these rights are very precariously perched. It is extremely difficult to protect the legitimate rights of speaking the truth without enabling those who would abuse these rights to publish false or offensive material, and some governments have simply given up trying to find the proper balancing point between the freedom to speak the truth and the “freedom” to say whatever the hell you want.” Pornography, for example, has gone from being recognized as a crime to be considered free speech with very few boundaries (child pornography and necrophilia seem to be the only real barriers left—at least I pray they are still barriers).
Now the ideal of these freedoms would be to recognize that a person has the right to express the truth while excluding the abuse of such freedoms. But since governments have a bad habit of defining what they dislike as an abuse, it is generally recognized that it is better that the abuse be tolerated so as not to restrict the legitimate use of these freedoms. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t work that way in practice.
The fact is, when it comes to the abuse of these freedoms, we have people who slander/libel those they dislike, publicly insulting or harassing certain groups. So long as the targets treated this way are unpopular with the media or the government, the harassers will get away with it. The Double Standard is, a person or group publicizing something attacking a group which is favored by the media can expect either being ignored or being publicized for vilification. But a person or group publicizing something attacking a group which is opposed by the media will generally be supported (For example, Bill Maher’s career of insulting religion).
Thus we have a situation where people are actually behaving like hypocrites. It’s OK to mock or slander/libel Christianity and suffer no consequences. But speak out against something like same sex “marriage” an suddenly, you have no freedom. You can lose your job or be sued or prosecuted. Something is clearly not right here. Either one tolerates both or rejects both if he or she wants to be consistent. Yet we have people who say #IamCharlieHebdo in support of a magazine which openly attacks religion in an offensive way, who won’t stand up for the right of a Christian Fire Chief in Atlanta to express his right in print a book which says homosexual acts are evil. The head of Facebook announces he won’t let extremism silence freedom of speech on Facebook, but Facebook has a history of silencing articles it deems as “offensive.” In fact, it’s in the policy page:
Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.
Pretend it’s a joke and you can bash religion to your heart’s content (Facebook pages like “The Virgin Mary Should Have Aborted” are allowed even though it exists to attack religion). Post a serious article on why homosexuality is wrong and it can get blocked or removed.
(It took a lot of fighting on Facebook to get an article posted)
So, the question arises—if a person hashtags #IamCharlie Hebdo, as a protest against the assault on freedom of speech and press, then why are they willing to accept other censorship? If the freedom of speech and press is an absolute, then the unpopular teachings of Christianity needs to be given the same rights to publish and be seen as those who bash Christianity already have.
It seems to me that the current outrage has missed the point. Yes, it is right to condemn these murders. Yes it is right to condemn the idea that a person or group can use violence to strike against those who say things that are offensive. But unless one is prepared to ask whether there is a double standard in play—such as tolerating hatred of groups one dislikes (like Christianity) and only getting outraged when it affects those one agrees with—it makes no sense to hashtag #IamCharlieHebdo. Why? Because such a protest is not a protest for justice. Rather it is a protest that an ally was attacked.
There is a civil way to oppose intolerance, but it requires us to remember truth and the obligation to treat the one we disagree with in a just manner, even when we believe we must oppose that person or group. That civil way is not really found in the West anymore. It is demanded that Christians give this civility, but it is not given to Christians.
So yes, be outraged that terrorists murdered over a dozen people on account of their being offended. But while doing that, why not ask if your own behavior is intolerant as well in what you accept being done to those you dislike?